Happy Ignoramus Directs Venomous Borgia Diva: Warwick Thompson

Elizabeth DeShong, far left, (Orsini), Claire Rutter, far right, (Lucrezia), and ensemble in in "Lucrezia Borgia" by Donizetti, in a staging by Mike Figgis at English National Opera in London. Photographer: Stephen Cummisky/ENO via Bloomberg

Ignorance is bliss, goes the old saying. Not at English National Opera, it isn’t.

Film director Mike Figgis (“Leaving Las Vegas,” “Internal Affairs”) has staged a work there, even though he cheerfully admits in a program note that he is ignorant about opera. Figgis has tackled Donizetti’s complicated 1833 tragedy “Lucrezia Borgia.”

Why do ignorant people boast of their deficiency as if it were a badge of honor?

The opera bravely tries to resist the director’s incompetence. It has some terrific arias, and a dramatic trio in Act 1 in which Lucrezia watches her husband poison the man she adores (who, just to rack up the tension further, happens to be her son). The son survives, only to be murdered by her later. Meaty stuff.

It’s no use. In Figgis’s hands, the staging generates all the excitement of watching a compost heap decay for two and a half hours.

He attempts to bring a kind of cinematic minimalism to the Renaissance-costumed production. The chorus members stand in rows, and rarely move. Ensemble blocking is static. The sets, which suggest the interior of a Renaissance palace and a town square, use only a fraction of the huge stage.

Twiddling, Fondling

The result is psychologically moribund, visually dull and dramatically stone dead. The singers, forced to stand in one spot, fiddle with their props for something to do. They twiddle cloaks, fondle cane knobs, and shuffle on their feet. It looks terrible.

It’s another paradox that tyro directors always fall back on the very same old-fashioned opera cliches they fondly imagine they’re avoiding.

There are four superfluous short films, screened between acts, which give Lucrezia’s back story. They arrive and depart with a clunking change of dramatic gear.

The shame is all the greater because the singing is good. Claire Rutter (Lucrezia) is a bel canto marvel. Rich of voice, silken of tone, both vocally agile and powerful, she’s a wonderful Lucrezia. Tenor Michael Fabiano (as Lucrezia’s son Gennaro) is a polished stylist. If his voice displayed a rasp on some notes on press night, it didn’t detract from the overall success of his performance.

Elizabeth DeShong plays the pants role of Orsini, friend of Gennaro, and sings it beautifully. In this production, her costume suggests that she’s a man at first, and a woman later. Figgis admits (program note again) that he had never heard of pants roles in opera and found the convention “ridiculous.” His confusing solution is the only ridiculous thing.

When I confess my complete ignorance of film to Figgis, I’m confident that he’ll fund me to make a movie. What are the odds it’ll be a turkey? Rating: *.

Blind Date

The 2008 off-Broadway hit play “Becky Shaw” by Gina Gionfriddo has arrived in a new production at the Almeida Theatre in London.

Suzanna (Anna Madeley) sets up her wealthy and cynical foster brother Max (David Wilson Barnes) on a blind date with kooky Becky Shaw (Daisy Haggard). Becky, one of life’s cheerful losers, is a thirtysomething temp in an office. Although Max is unimpressed, he has a quickie with her anyway. Unsurprisingly, Becky is none too happy when he won’t return her calls.

Thus is set in train a comedy of American manners. On the credit sheet there are some zingy one-liners. “Love? It’s just a happy by-product of use,” says Max. The characters all discuss each others’ motivations, with satisfyingly contradictory results. The moral ambiguity is a dramatically rich element of the show.

TV Sitcom

On the debit side, the endless one-liners give the impression of a typical fast-talking television comedy drama or sitcom. (Gionfriddo has several TV credits in her resume.) Sometimes the pace needs to be relaxed, the situation explored more deeply. What might work on TV doesn’t necessarily work on stage. Parts of the plot feel forced and contrived too.

Barnes is great as Max, and he hints at the vulnerability beneath the character’s cynicism. Haggard is enjoyably complex as the needy Becky. Madeley doesn’t prevent Suzanna sounding too whiney, and some of the other American accents are off. The play’s no masterpiece, yet it’s no dud either. Rating: **.

Royal Flute

The Royal Opera House’s beautiful staging of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” returns with soprano Kate Royal as Pamina. Royal, whose father-in-law is chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II, is a hot tip to be the soprano who sings at the wedding of Prince William later in the year. If she does, she’ll bring a glorious sound and classy phrasing to the event.

There are some other superb singers, such as Christopher Maltman (Papageno) and Franz-Josef Selig (Sarastro) in the cast. The revival director needs to make things tighter and more detailed dramatically. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy. Rating: **.

“Lucrezia Borgia” is in repertory at the Coliseum through March 3. Information: http://www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200.

“Becky Shaw” is at the Almeida until March 5. Infromation: http://www.almeida.co.uk or +44-20-7359-4404.

“The Magic Flute” is in repertory at the Royal Opera House through Feb. 26. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless
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